Amazon Web Services made a gaggle of announcements on Wednesday and Thursday at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas. Likely to cause the most buzz is the introduction of Amazon Alexa for Business. The company is bringing its popular consumer "smart speaker," sometimes termed a "smart home assistant," to the enterprise.

But don't get too excited. Alexa is likely to show up in offices, given that the hardware options are relatively low cost and the features are convenient. But Alexa is not likely to actually transform offices, because c'mon, how many of the things that you do at work can you realistically do by voice? Remember chatbots? Alexa for Business is going to be like chatbots: Mostly hype for the meantime.

"If voice is a natural way of interacting in your home," said Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, per Reuters, "why don't we build something that you can actually use at work as well?" Voice may be natural, but it's a nightmare when you need a computer to perform a complex task. Even in the home, the reality is that Alexa is simply not good enough at accurately and precisely parsing human language to do much more than play music, turn off the lights, and add items to your shopping list.

On the new Alexa for Business homepage, Amazon claims:

Alexa can simplify conference rooms, allowing meeting attendees to start meetings and control the equipment in the room by simply using their voice. Alexa can also do things around the workplace, like providing directions to a conference room, notifying IT about a broken printer, or placing an order for office supplies. [...] Alexa can also provide important information, like inventory levels, and help with on-the-job training.

As someone who personally has extensive experience with Alexa in the home, I am super skeptical about every feature being touted here beyond a "tell IT" type of command that's hooked up to an email address or Slack bot. There is no way in hell that I would trust Alexa to order toilet paper, let alone the particular type of printer paper that the office manager prefers.

The unreliability of Amazon's own marketplace compounds Alexa's inability to handle multiple variables -- what if you ask for Keurig refills and she orders from a ludicrously overpriced bot seller, whereas a human would switch over to Target.com? If a tiny human secretary lived inside of Alexa devices -- or the artificially intelligent equivalent -- then sure, but so far Alexa barely merits the label "intelligent" and therefore can't handle actual responsibility.

My skepticism notwithstanding, coworking startup WeWork has been using Amazon Alexa for Business for a month. TechCrunch reports that "users can utilize the 'ask WeWork' skill to extend a meeting room reservation, see which meeting rooms are empty, or ask when the next meeting in that room is scheduled to start. Users can also dim the lights or turn them on or off."

All of the above pertains to Alexa as it currently exists. Since B2B developers are far more likely to garner direct payments for their software that developers serving consumers, we can expect the profit motive to push Alexa's capabilities forward quickly. The ability to create custom skills, also described on the Alexa for Business homepage, is promising:

Alexa for Business lets you build your own private custom skills for your workplace, your employees, or your customers to use. You can make these skills available only to your shared Alexa devices, and your enrolled users. Alexa for Business provides an additional set of APIs that provide information about device location, which lets you add context to your skills.

Alexa for Business was from the only new product that Amazon debuted at re:Invent, and it may turn out that one of its numerous new developer tools will be more significant to offices across America -- not least by inevitably squashing competitors.

Keep an eye on Amazon Web Services' expanded Internet of Things offerings and VR developer tools, not to mention the intriguing Deep Lens, "a new video camera that runs deep learning models directly on the device, out in the field." Regardless of whether Alexa for Business makes a splash, something that AWS launched this week will.

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Published on: Nov 30, 2017